Oregon is considered by many to be among the most environmentally friendly states in the U.S. But as many residents found out upon moving to the seemingly untouched forests of Lincoln County, aerial pesticide spraying is a major problem. It’s illegal to spray pesticides by air in national forests (and has been since 1984).
Private landowners, however, can still do so, and many timber companies in the area do just that, using airplanes to blast herbicides, fungicides and other chemicals into areas of clearcut forest. Clearcutting is a common method of logging on private and state forest lands in Oregon.
It involves cutting down all the trees from a designated area, replanting trees in the area, then repeating the process, usually in 40- to 60-year increments. There are a number of problems with clearcutting, not the least of which is “converting healthy, functioning, and diverse forests into monoculture tree plantations,” as conservation group Oregon Wild put it.1
Another major problem is that timber companies commonly use aerial pesticide spraying on the clearcut land. It keeps plants from competing with the newly planted trees and is a less expensive method of application than applying pesticides from land or pulling them manually.
However, it’s also environmentally destructive, as the chemicals may drift to neighboring land and water, polluting water and putting public health at risk.
A battle of sorts has ensued to stop the destructive spraying, and the pesticide industry has come out in full force to tamp down residents’ rights to clean air, water and land. “It’s definitely a David and Goliath situation,” Michelle Holman, antipesticide activist and board member at Oregon’s Beyond Toxics, told The Intercept. “But sometimes David wins.”2
Pesticide Industry Tries to Take Down Local Activist Group
The Lincoln County aerial spray ban was passed in May 2017, restricting timber companies from aerial sprayings in the county. It’s a measure that goes beyond the limits set by federal law, and it’s in good company: throughout the U.S., there are 155 such measures in place to restrict pesticides on a local level.
The ban was a major success of Lincoln County Community Rights, a small group of volunteer Oregon locals who took on pesticide giants in a fight for what they believed to be the inalienable right to live in a county without pesticides harming their health.
It wasn’t a fair fight, as pesticide trade group CropLife America, which had revenue of more than $16 million in 2015 and whose dues-paying members include Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and DuPont, stepped in to try to stop the ban.
“CropLife America … ranked state and local issues as the top of its list of ‘tier 1 concerns’ for both 2017 and 2018, according to internal documents obtained by The Intercept that pinpointed Oregon as ground zero for the fight,” The Intercept reported.3
CropLife America teamed up with PR firm Paradigm Communications and created an opposition group called Protect Family Farms and Forests. Because the proposed ordinance included a direct-action provision, which meant citizens had the right to enforce the ban (this provision was ultimately not passed), CropLife tried to paint the local activists as eco-terrorists. According to The Intercept:4
“ … [M]uch of the opposition to the ban focused on its direct action provision, arguing that it showed that people who wanted to limit pesticides were dangerous radicals. The opposition group … produced videos warning that the ordinance would allow ‘anyone to take the law into their own hands with no legal consequences.’
On Facebook, the group warned about the possibility of ‘trespassing, vandalism, destruction of property, and even bodily harm,’ should the law take effect.
… ‘They were trolling us pretty hard. Any time we had a radio interview, they would come out with a press release two hours later bashing us,’ said [Rio] Davidson [a member of Lincoln County Community Rights]. ‘Every single website you go to would have their ads running. They paid for advertising everywhere. Radio, TV, internet.’
And while both sides had dueling Facebook pages, opponents of the ban also bought ads on the site. ‘Even when you were on our page, you’d see ads for theirs,’ said Davidson. Protect Family Farms and Forests also mailed fliers about the dangers of the ordinance to everyone in the county … ”
Local Activist Group Succeeds in Lincoln County Aerial Spray Ban
Lincoln County Community Rights ultimately succeeded, with the ordinance passing by 61 votes. They focused, in part, on the stories of residents who had experienced health effects due to pesticide exposure. One woman was sprayed by aerial pesticides while she was in her 20s. She developed respiratory problems and died from cancer at the age of 44.
Other residents spoke of neighbors dying of brain cancer, which they believed to be connected to the aerial spraying. Residents in nearby Lane County, Oregon, meanwhile, spoke of miscarriages, stillbirths and infant death that they also believed were triggered by the pesticides. An amendment to ban aerial spraying of pesticides in Lane County was introduced three years ago but has yet to move forward to a vote.
The opposition, in turn, painted the ordinance as an “assault on family farmers” and used farmers and business owners to claim that a ban on aerial spraying would increase expenses and make it nearly impossible for farmers to prevent the spread of invasive species.5